Kazakhstan should strengthen the parts of its constitutional reforms focused on plans for a human rights commissioner and for a Constitutional Court to reinforce human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today.

Kazakhstan has scheduled a national referendum on amendments to the constitution for June 5, 2022.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the time frame for the referendum does not allow for public consultation and debate about the proposals, nor for consideration of changes to strengthen key human rights elements.

The referendum is also being held against the backdrop of concerns over grave human rights violations committed during January events in which over 200 people died, and recent detentions of political activists.

“Kazakhstan should show it is committed to human rights improvements by strengthening some of the constitutional proposals,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should also allow the time needed to open the constitutional reforms to public consultation and debate and to consider amendments before the final proposals are put to a referendum.”

On March 16, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev delivered a speech, “New Kazakhstan: The Path of Renewal and Modernization,” that signalled the constitutional changes.

A government working group published 56 proposed changes to the constitution on April 25. With the national referendum scheduled for June 5, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any arrangements for broad public consultation on the proposed amendments to allow consideration of opinions from numerous stakeholders in both rural and urban areas. The government should undertake broad consultation and consider further changes before the proposals are put to a referendum. If this is not possible before June 5, it should postpone the vote until such consultation has taken place.

Among the proposed constitutional changes that could improve human rights protections in Kazakhstan are amendments to strengthen the status of the human rights commissioner and to establish a Constitutional Court.

Proposed article 83-1 of the constitution enshrines the status and mandate of the high commissioner for human rights, in line with December 2021 recommendations by the Venice Commission, an expert legal body of the Council of Europe. The Venice Commission provided an opinion on the “draft law on the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” in response to a request from the government. The law was adopted in December 2021.

However, the procedure for electing and dismissing the commissioner is not included in article 83-1, and the Venice Commission recommended that it should be specified. Article 83-1 does set out immunity for the commissioner for official acts during their term.

However, the Venice Principles, the “Principles on the Protection and Promotion of the Ombudsman Institution” adopted by the Venice Commission, provide that “the functional immunity shall apply also after the Ombudsman, the deputies or the decision-making staff-member leave the Institution.” The current immunity provision should be extended to include deputies and other decision-making staff in the office and should make clear that functional immunity continues beyond their terms in office. 

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